14 May 2015

Jean Anglade: La Maîtresse au piquet (1996)

Jean Anglade turned one hundred this March, and has written a great number of novels. Born in the Auvergne, an area which his novels document, he nevertheless refuses to call himself a regional writer.

La Maîtresse au piquet was published when Anglade was over eighty, and concerns the life of Frédérique (or Frédo for short) who comes from working-class origins and was partly brought up by her widowed aunt in Paris and goes on to become a primary school teacher in the Zones d'éducation prioritaire in the 18ème. Life is stressful teaching children from the HLMs, and difficulties not only come from the pupils but from their parents and the head teacher. After a long love affair with travel agent Claude, she is unceremoniously dumped by her girlfriend and is devastated. To the amazement of her friends and associates, she decides to become a supply teacher in the Auvergne, moving to the hamlet of Antaillat near the small town of Issoire: it would be difficult to find anywhere so unlike Paris.

Initially Frédo sees her new job – small classes of willing students, no discipline problems – as a paradise compared to Paris. And although she comes to realise it's not quite as simple as that, this original impression isn't too far from the truth as she sees it. The Chtitny family are travellers and leave two children at the school she's temping at: they may have fleas that Frédo has to cope with, but Jean-Paul is a kind of noble savage with a great knowledge of the animal kingdom, as she begins to realise when she sees a brown lizard licking spittle from his finger.

Despite the book cover, most of the book is concerned with Frédo's extracurricular activities, such as getting to understand the Kleisters from a distance: they are understandably ostracised in Antaillat because the couple sing Nazi songs and the husband wears a belt with swastikas around it. The other residents of Antaillat don't take her curiosity seriously, and welcome the newcomer. And Frédo soon settles in with the pet rabbit Bunny, her goldfish Krasucki and Krasuckienne, not forgetting her car Choupette.

Things change when Frédo's car gets damaged and Vincent does the repairs. She thinks he looks like Gérard Depardieu in Les Valseuses: Beurk !, as her pupils might have said to things that make them want to vomit. Vincent, in a love story I find a little difficult to believe, becomes Frédo's smicard as she calls him in the book – a man on the minimum wage who drives a clapped-out deuche, has no culture as such to boast about, no ambition, and who can only spell very badly. Frédo starts teaching him, well aware of the fruitlessness of the task. She seems to hover between accepting him for his faults and just ditching him, especially as he doesn't care about driving over the alcohol limit, and on one occasion she makes him a meal and he turns up very late pissed out of his skull after celebrating with friends.

Not exactly the foundations for the perfect relationship, you might think. But then Frédo is diagnosed with breast cancer and has a single mastectomy and Vincent stands by her, even when it's possible that the cancer might be spreading. Frédo and Vincent are too old to have children, but then suddenly the magic Vincent pulls a rabbit out of the hat and reveals that he has a child by a former girlfriend who's being looked after by the grandparents, and that there's a chance they'll be able to adopt him. As it turns out, the only condition the grandparents make is that Frédo and Vincent are married, a condition that the happy couple are only too plesed to fulfil. So, here's a readymade family that Frédo obviously hopes will last as long as it can – she has a great deal of love to catch up with.

This is an interesting novel but at 370 pages is too long and some fat could certainly be cut from it. One thing that really annoyed me was Frédo's correcting of Vincent's speech because he doesn't use the imperfect subjunctive. What? She may have been a little angry, but there's absolutely no excuse for this pedantry, or are we supposed to laugh at it and criticise her? Also, narrator Frédo (or should that be Jean Anglade?) needs to check out use of English: 'To keep the pie and to eat it'? Well, 'To have your cake and eat it', yes.

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